There was an immense feeling of satisfaction that washed over me at the end of Sleight. The sense of having seen a well-told movie by talented people. A sort of relief that J.D. Dillard and his cast and crew pulled it off.
Sleight is a mash-up of different genres but it never really feels like it. There’s a seamlessness to the way the movie unfolds allowing the more sensational aspects of the film to be muted. It’s a morality play wrapped in the gangster genre, served on a platter of the superhero origin story.
What fascinated me the most about Sleight was the idea hidden behind all the little story flourishes. The idea of magic as a tool for salvation. When I say magic, I don’t mean ‘magic’ in the fantastical term. I’m referring to the magic of magicians and their misdirections, their sleight of hands, their performance patter, all of it combined to give you a trick.
I’ve always found Magic to be one of the great metaphors for storytelling. Both require a tacit agreement between the audience and the performer/storyteller. The agreement being that nothing that’s about to happen actually happened. It’s a form of honest deception. Buried in the lies though is a kernel of truth; your reaction.
Midway through the movie Bo (Jacob Latimore) tells his girlfriend Holly (Seychelle Gabriel) a story about an old Italian magician he saw as a child on the Venice Beach boardwalk. The old man did some card and coin tricks. But the trick that Bo obsessed over was one where he stabbed a knife through his hand and pulled it back out, seemingly unharmed. Bo’s reveal to how the trick was done and his take away from it is the heart of the movie.
Bo is a street magician by day and a gopher for a local drug lord Angelo (Dule Hill) by night. Bo sees his job for Angelo as just a temporary thing. He soon discovers that people like Angelo don’t believe in part-time help. Bo is drawn in deeper and deeper into Angelo’s business much to his dismay.
He comes up with a scheme to get himself out from Angelo’s crew and leave with enough money so he and his little sister Tina (Storm Reid) can start over. Complications soon arise, both in a new girl in Bo’s life, Holly and in the ever spiraling Shakespearean tragedy that is criminal life. With each new plan to extricate himself from Angelo’s world, he only manages to fall deeper in.
J.D. Dillard has a great talent for creating tension just from a camera angle. There’s a scene in which Bo steals from one of his clients, a night club owner, Luna (Cameron Esposito). Dillard and his cameraman, Ed Wu place the camera directly below the safe, so we’re looking up as Bo breaks in. They hold the shot. The angle of the camera is an odd one. But the displacement of where we would expect the camera to be adds a layer of uneasiness to the frame.
Earlier in the movie, Angelo tests Bo by having him chop off a hand of a rival dealer. The scene is brutal and visceral, but hardly anything is shown. Dillard cuts between Bo’s anguished face, the butcher knife, and the dealer’s horrified face. The actual cutting is never seen but felt.
IMDB lists this as Dillard’s second film. The marketing team is billing it as his debut. It doesn’t matter, either way, Dillard has demonstrated a working knowledge of basic storytelling and evocative filmmaking that still eludes some of the bigger name directors working in the system today.
There’s a poster in Bo’s room of Harry Houdini. At the bottom of the poster perfectly framed by his lamp and his little tool box where he keeps his magic kit is the promotional tagline, “Nothing On Earth Can Hold Houdini, a Prisoner.” A little on the nose but I liked it.
You may notice I’ve said little about the superhero origin story I mentioned at the top of the review. I think you should discover that for yourself. It has an “Unbreakable” feel to it. Not so much in a twist ending sort of way. But in the core understanding of the real human drama within the fantastical trope of superheroes.
Latimore’s Bo is at once shy and doubting while also being confident in his abilities and daring in his attempts to break free. Yet he’s not above asking for help. When Holly finds out Bo’s plight, she offers advice, support, and assurance that she’s with him. Gabriel as Holly is able to sidestep the ‘here for you’ trope. This is partially due to Dillard’s and Alex Thurer’s script which allows Holly an actual arc and resolution to her own conflict.
Hill’s Angelo is an interesting combination of a charming, gregarious mentor figure that hides a petulant vindictive and morally violent man. Hill walks this line wonderfully. The way he asks Bo for help is never menacing but always genial and knowing. It is only when he perceives an insult or a betrayal that he morphs into a dangerously unstable force, almost childlike in a way.
Sleight is not a great movie. But it is a really good movie that deserves your time and money. On top of everything else, it’s as diverse a cast that I’ve seen since the F &F franchise. There’s nary a white person to be found except on the peripheral edges. That such a genre mash-up is so chock full of POC is in itself a refreshing sight, but it also happens to be just a damn good movie.